Quilting the Story:
An Interview with Donald Davis,
by Mary Fran Bell-Johnson
What can be said of Donald Davis, the master storyteller from Ocracoke Island, that has not already been proclaimed by countless others? As a retired Methodist minister, former Chair of the Board of Directors for the National Storytelling Association, featured teller at the Smithsonian Institution and World’s Fair, master teacher, author, producer of books and tapes of his works, and guest host on National Public Radio, Donald Davis has cultivated a seemingly endless harvest of heartwarming lore and tradition. From his ever-present bow tie to his deliberate yet genteel Carolina drawl, Davis soothingly and profoundly weaves and shares his storytelling “quilt” with his listeners … as few can.
VL First of all, Donald, on behalf of the Virginia Library Association Paraprofessional Forum, I can’t begin to tell you how excited we are that you will be with us in May as our Sunday evening banquet speaker and Monday morning keynote speaker. The 2006 VLAPF conference theme is “Bridging the Information Gap: Preserving Yesterday’s Lessons, Anticipating Tomorrow’s Demands.” Since the Virginia Library Association was formed over one hundred years ago, libraries have undergone a tremendous transformation in the way information is gathered, sorted, retrieved, and shared. In your opinion, what is the relevance of storytelling in this ever-changing, automated, techno-savvy generation?
DD Well, there is a vast difference between information and wisdom … there’s a huge difference between the two. Every time we talk about technology, the only word that we use is information. It’s “How can we move information, move information, move information?” Technology can move information more and more and more rapidly, but moving information has nothing to do with preserving wisdom. Preserving wisdom is a real central, in my mind, library function that is very different from all the technologies. Preserving wisdom is related to knowing our story, not someone else’s story, our story, having our story preserved and valued, and kept in a way so that it doesn’t get lost. It makes story more and more important than ever instead of less important, because it’s easy to say, “Technology, technology, technology.” What happens to me in schools and libraries is that I hear the people talk about the form and no content. All the conversation is about the medium and when I try to get hold of content, that’s when I bump up against a wall.
Story, basically, is the content. If we lose our story, what is it that we’re preserving?
VL How do libraries connect with storytellers, or should I say how do storytellers connect with libraries? Are libraries friend or foe to the oral tradition?
DD The library should be a real living center for the oral tradition because after all, print is a documentation medium, not really a creative medium. From the very beginning of the development of writing, writing developed not as a creative medium but as a documentation medium. The primary word was the oral story that was told, and then we created writing to save stories from getting lost when everybody couldn’t be there to hear the story told. The storage medium is always secondary, not primary. Before we get to the storage medium, we have the living, vibrant, creative medium that lives in the oral tradition and in the stories as they are alive. For me the library should be, really, the home of that, because if it’s not, what we get misled into believing is that one written version equals the whole story. The written version is kind of like a recipe as opposed to the meal, or a road map as opposed to going on the trip. The deal is, are you happy to look at the recipe, or do you want to eat? Are you happy to look at the map, or do you want to go on the trip? The difference is, are you happy to read the book, or do you really want to hear the story? Do you want to meet the whole, living story?The deal is, are you happy
to look at the recipe, or
do you want to eat?
VL One comparison that comes to my mind is washing your hands when you have only one hand. Your hand still gets wet, but you don’t get the full action of the wash — but maybe that’s a poor analogy.
DD That’s true because one hand is like someone telling a story with no one listening. It’s like a book when you can’t ask a question, when you can’t talk to the person who wrote it, or when you can’t even give them a puzzled look. It takes that two-sidedness of the teller and the listeners to rub those two hands together to make that story come flowing out of it.
VL On the subject of advocacy, would you expand on your ideas about how stories connect communities?
DD Story is really about identity; it’s about identity maintenance; it’s about who I am. A community of people and their relationship to one another is not about where you work. It’s who you are, where you live, and from whom you have come. So, if you go to a cocktail party and all the conversation is about work, you’re not in a community. If you go to a cocktail party and the conversation is about family, about how’s your mama, where are your children, and how are they doing, you then have a community. Community connects people with these things: where you live and to whom you’re related and from whom you came. Community doesn’t connect people in terms of where you work. Community creates a sense of kinship, and we’re akin to people with whom we share common experiences. As soon as you hear somebody’s story, it reminds you of something you did like that, of somebody you know who’s like that, of a place you’ve been that’s like that. You’re then in a community together.
VL While doing research for this interview, I came across a brief interview with the writer Paul Auster in which he comments on the value of storytelling. He stated that “experience is a great chaos of events, and it’s only through storytelling — whether it’s the professional storytelling of a novelist or people sitting around telling stories of their childhood — that a story organizes reality. If we didn’t have stories to tell each other, I don’t think we’d be able to understand the world at all.” What are your views on his comments?
DD The real key phrase in there is “organizes reality.” What a story does is like what a quilter does. When Grandma takes all the worn-out garments from the family and makes something out of them, we look at it and say, “Oh, there’s the shirt I had when I was in high school” or “There’s the tie that Daddy used to love.” It’s the organization of the reality that the story accomplishes, which means it makes sense out of things and happenings.
VL In regard to the true, definitive format of storytelling, I’ve heard about the debate about whether or not storytelling should only be the telling of traditional tales and stories, and not the personal and humorous stories told by many. Have you heard of this debate? What are your views?
DD It’s all of that and it’s all important! There’s no separation of it because every traditional story is the model for us; however, if we never look at our own, we’ve not organized our own reality.
VL Would you elaborate on your method of story composition as “not a word-centered approach but a picture-centered approach”?
DD A story is what happens when I have a picture in my head that I would like for you to see. If we’re together, I can move that picture from my head to your head by telling you about it and watching for your reaction. We have a story when there’s an “aha” reaction to the picture I’m relating to the listener.
VL And that’s something you don’t get over the Internet!
DD And you don’t get that in a book, really! What that means is that every time I tell the story, the words could be different. That’s why my stories are made of pictures and not of words. The picture remains the same, but if I’m in California or Maine or Florida or with kindergartners or at a retirement home, the way I have to move that picture requires different words. Eventually I may write a version of the story for people who will never get to hear it, but that is still another set of words. In addition, I would never use those words in the telling of that story. The book is like writing the guide for the people who can’t come see the pictures.
VL In looking back over your career choices, did your ministerial training make you a better storyteller, or did storytelling make you a better minister?
DD Absolutely … I grew up hearing traditional storytelling, and seminary is a writing process; I largely learned how to write sermons, not how to preach. It was only when I got back in touch with the storytelling medium of my childhood that I really became good at that.… we look at it and say,
“Oh, there’s the shirt I
had when I was in high
school” or “There’s the tie
that Daddy used to love.”
VL Are great storytellers born, or are they created?
DD Both! This is the image that works for me. There are some kids who learn to read before they start school and there are some kids who learn reading with great difficulty. We never, in school, say that he reads and she doesn’t! We work at helping everyone learn to read better, and the same thing is true with storytelling. Some people naturally tell things without even thinking about it, and some people have to work at it with great difficulty, but everybody can get better.
VL Donald, you’ve been interviewed so many times and have probably been asked, basically, the same questions. Is there a question you haven’t been asked but you’ve just been dying to answer?
DD Hmm … I’ll have to think about that a little bit. What you don’t get lots of questions on are questions of meaning. People talk about process, technique, and methodology, but people don’t talk about questions of meaning a lot. Why can no technology kill storytelling? Why, still, after someone spends the whole day in front of the computer, is the highlight of his day going to a bar and telling a story to the bartender? The bartender then says, “That reminds me of … ,” and here comes another story!
VL In conclusion, in your own words, describe the legacy of Donald Davis.
DD That’s a hard question, because you don’t think about that. The thing that always pleases me most is when I tell a story that reminds other people of something that happened to them that they hadn’t thought about. They, in turn, end up being able to tell a story they wouldn’t have told if they hadn’t heard mine. It’s kind of like a parable thing. It’s not the appreciation of my story. If my story, though, takes you to your grandmother or takes you to your high school or takes you to a childhood friend and all of a sudden, you’re walking out telling someone something you would never have thought of otherwise, then my sense of what I have done has worked.
Fred Allen once said, “A human being is nothing but a story with a skin around it.” These words seem to sum up Davis’s ambition to encourage the story in all of us. What a fine ambition … and what greater example to follow than Donald Davis!_______________________________
Mary Fran Bell-Johnson is Electronic Resources Assistant for Greenwood Library, Longwood University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.